Pre-service teachers responded to a twenty-item survey on the topic of Islam. The survey was designed to both assess their knowledge about Islam as well as to gauge their reaction to Islam in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. An analysis of the 218 responses indicate that many of the pre-service teachers in the sample lack a rudimentary knowledge as to the nature of the Islamic faith as well as the global nature and influence of Islam. In addition the survey responses suggest that the majority of this sample of pre-service teachers did not grasp the diverse nature of Islam. Although pre-service teachers' responses concerning how they would treat Muslim students indicated sensitivity, few seemed to be aware of specific ways in which to integrate diversity into their teaching. Pre-service coursework needs to address the misconceptions and lack of knowledge concerning Islam and Muslims. It also should address strategies for infusing diversity into the curriculum.
In recent years there has been much concern that as our nation's population becomes more diverse, our public school teachers need to better understand this diversity and how to work with diverse populations of students (Sleeter, 2001). With the events of September 11, 2001 as a backdrop, once again the issue of understanding diversity re-emerged. Countless discussions about the events on September 11 and after have occurred throughout thousands of classrooms. While no doubt these discussions were multi-faceted in nature ranging from American reaction to the September attack to understanding why those who perpetrated the act did so, one issue that no doubt arose during the course of these discussions concerned the nature of the Islamic religion.
As roughly seven million Americans claim the Islamic religion and an increasing number of our nation's school populace is Muslim, it became of interest to contemplate the nature of students' schemata about Islam. Research in cognitive psychology has shown that often students' pre-conceived ideas about virtually any topic, let alone pre-existing ideas about religion or ethnicity, are very powerful and as such difficult to change (Barrass, 1984; Steffensen, Joag-Dev, & Anderson, 1979). University students' pre-existing knowledge, and specifically that of pre-service teachers became our particular focus. Based on schema theory it would follow that pre-service teachers' schemata held in reference to a religion such as Islam would have some impact, if not a large one, on how these future teachers dealt with student questions about the events of September 11 as well as on how these future teachers interacted with students of the Muslim persuasion.
The major research question focused upon the nature of pre-service teachers' knowledge about Islam. Approximately one month after the September 11 events, pre-service teachers were asked to complete a 20-item survey on the topic of Islam. All of the respondents were undergraduate students seeking teacher certification at a mid-sized state university in a mid-atlantic state; the total number of teacher education majors at the university was approximately 1,450. The investigators explained that an analysis of this survey was to be undertaken to understand the nature of students' schemata and as a means of modeling to pre-service teachers one method by which to ascertain the nature of students' schemata. Students were also informed that the survey answers would be reconsidered and discussed during an upcoming unit on diversity. For the latter reason, two courses taken by all teacher education majors after the freshman year that contained units on the topic of diversity were selected as the focus of the study. By the time students enrolled in these courses, most of them had completed their general education requirements; one of these requirements was a course in history although students could choose from a wide variety of options. …